Hong Kong Cinema Made Easy
by Gary Johnson

No cinema in the world hits the movie screen with the same visceral punch as Hong Kong cinema. With hails of bullets and explosions of colors, directors such as John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark have blistered the screen with white-hot gun battles, gravity-defying sword fights, and mind-boggling stunts. It's a cinema of action, where both men and women are equally capable of wielding weapons.

Sorting through the plethora of movies and deciding what to watch and what to skip has been a difficult task for most American viewers. As a result, a handful of directors and stars have been lionized (such as Jackie Chan, John Woo, and Chow Yun Fat), but the remainder of the artists have been widely neglected.

A new book Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head by Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins helps clear away some of the mystery of Hong Kong movies by providing a quick primer course on the subject. The book is basically a film guide with short synopses of several hundred movies, but the films are arranged in chapters so that the authors can begin each group of films by discussing some important topics, such as the various genres--Girls with Guns (which the writers call "Nail-Polished Fists"), the Supernatural, and Hong Kong Noir.

The book gets off to a roaring start with a chapter entitled "Ten That Rip," which is a representative sampling of some of the best Hong Kong movies from a wide range of categories. This selection of movies is ideal for people just starting to pursue Hong Kong movies. The authors cover in lucid detail movies such as The Bride With White Hair (a dark and erotic tale set in a mythical past and filled with amazing sword fights) , A Chinese Ghost Story ("an ancient Chinese legend married to Western pacing" that "is at once earthy and unearthly, elegant and chaotic"), Full Contact (a crime drama from director Ringo Lam that is "drenched in feedback and octane" while reveling in "outrageous villains, antiheroes, and the hollow rattle of brass casings hitting the pavement"), Hard Boiled ("an absolute must-see" crime drama from director John Woo with "several action sequences that suck your jaw to the floor"), Police Story 3: Supercop (a cop vs. drug smugglers story starring Jackie Chan with "an assortment of ever-escalating, heart-halting stunts"), Naked Killer (a sexy, stylish, hyper-kinetic explosion of bullets and lipstick that "arches its back and spits at you for ninety minutes"), and Sex & Zen (an audacious, period-piece story of a scholar who has his less than exceptional sexual organ replaced by a horse's!).

Throughout the book, the authors provide many side bars on various topics, including Chow Yun Fat, female warriors, movies with one great scene (and little else), fractured English in subtitles, the story of the legendary Wong Fei-Hong, hints for watching Hong Kong supernatural films, Amy Yip ("the Jane Russell of Hong Kong"), and many others. In addition, the book features a list of video rental locations that specialize in Hong Kong movies, complete with a list of film titles in their original Chinese characters--which can prove to be a godsend when dealing with non-English speaking video store clerks in Chinatown.

Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head is an indispensable guide for anyone seeking to learn more about Hong Kong cinema.

Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head by Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins, A Fireside Book, $12, softcover.